Bollywood dance numbers on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” have truly captured mainstream America’s interest and curiosity. The man who introduced them on the show, one of the hottest reality shows on U.S. television, was renowned dancer and choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan. The 36-year-old Californian has also appeared on several shows, including the popular NBC shows “The Office” and “Superstars of Dance”. Here are excerpts from his recent interview with Isha Roy:
You are trained in several Indian classical dance forms, including Kathak, Bharatnatyam, modern dance styles, African style, and many more. How did you get introduced to formal dance training and, more specifically, to the Indian classical dance?
I was exposed to Bollywood dancing at a very young age. I was drawn to the music and the choreography. I didn’t take any formal training until around the age of 16. I am what people in the dance world call “self-taught.” I made a bold choice and asked my parents if they minded if I take Kathak lessons. They were surprised. I told them that I thought it would be different, and there aren’t too many Kathak dancers out here in the U.S. and why not…They were completely OK with it, and I studied Kathak for around 10 years. That journey kind of triggered my interest to learn other styles as well, and I dabbled with Bharatnatyam, modern dance, jazz, African tribal dance, and ballroom.
Your dance company in California has the largest number of Bollywood dancers on the West Coast. Tell us how you started your school?
After graduating, I was contemplating whether I wanted to continue my studies in sociology, or pursue my true passion, which was dance. I decided to take a risk and did a little bit of research and realized that even in 2003, there wasn’t a proper Bollywood dance school in the U.S. People taught it out of their homes. I wanted to open a proper venue for the next generation to pursue Bollywood dancing at a proper studio. I opened my studio in 2003 to 60 students, and today we serve 350 ongoing all-ages students. We probably have another 150 or so who are considered drop-ins. I feel very blessed that I was able to do this for not just the community but also all over the nation.
You are considered “Hollywood’s favorite Bollywood choreographer.” Tell us how you acquired that title.
I think it just came out from the popularity of “So You Think You Can Dance”. I was given the opportunity to choreograph the “one” Bollywood number four years ago. It was just a one-time deal. But America just completely loved what they saw. The contestants did such a fantastic job at capturing the essence of Bollywood and shortly after that, it became a phenomenon. I was very happy to have been a part of it.
Your choreography has appeared on several primetime shows, including “The Office, Superstars of Dance”, and, of course, “So You Think You Can Dance”. How did you get involved with these super-hit primetime shows?
Shows like “The Office” and MTV came to me before “So You Think You Can Dance”. They just found me online. The power of the internet is amazing. And again, there weren’t too many of us out here doing this at the time. So back then, I stood out like a sore thumb being that my dance school was the only Bollywood dance school in the Los Angeles area.
What were your thoughts on introducing the Bollywood dance style to “So You Think You Can Dance?”
The executive producers of “So You Think You Can Dance” took a chance. Luck was on my side because I was able to introduce this style of dance to the nation and to be able to showcase it on two contestants that were considered to be the show’s favorites.
To date, the show calls the “Dhoom Taana” routine one of their all-time top 10 favorites. That’s validation for me that something good that came out of it and people enjoyed it. People magazine recently had a poll asking people to rank the hardest dance styles on “So You Think You Can Dance”, and ranked Number 2 was Bollywood, after hip-hop.
How are you able to get these dancers who have never done any kind of Indian dancing before to be able to do master level Bharatnatyam steps with such perfection before millions of people?
Thank you for saying that. I think that the mass public definitely appreciate that these kids on the show are trying their best and they do try not to offend anyone. That’s always been one of their top concerns whenever they are doing Bollywood. I understand that whatever style I throw at them, whether it’s Kathak, Bharatnatyam, Odissi, it takes years and years to master. By no means are these contestants saying that they are doing the classical end of it correctly. I think it’s more of the package. How they are able to do it so well and how they are able to mange is based on their own talent.
Do you think that there is a need to change the classical or traditional choreography of the Indian classical dance in order for it to receive more recognition in the international dance scene?
It’s so loose to say “what is Bollywood dancing,” or “what are the elements that should be in it and what should not be in it.” I think earlier on, and I would be the first to admit this that I would be watching a Bollywood movie and wondering why there is so much hip-hop in it. Since when is hip-hop a part of Bollywood? But then with dance, everything evolves, everything changes and sometimes it changes for the good and sometimes for the bad. It’s really subjective. It all goes back to the person watching it and what their opinion is. It all goes back to what someone’s taste is.
What has been the reaction of the audience in India to your choreography on “So You Think You Can Dance”?
I can only say good stuff because I haven’t received any hate mail. I think my most treasured compliment was from Saroj Khan, who saw my work. She said that I have done a good job. And Madhuri Dixit used to watch the show when she was in Denver and said that she knows of me and likes my work. They are my two big dance icons I have always followed, and so to hear from them that they are tipping their hats to me, I can die tomorrow and be happy.
Why is it that we haven’t seen an Indian dancer yet on “So You Think You Can Dance?
I think that as much as dance is a part of our culture, I think that the [Indians abroad] haven’t quite yet been able to hold the standard of being eclectic enough to hit dance every style.
What are your thoughts on the standard of western dancing performed on Indian dance competition shows?
I think it’s great. I think their hip-hop is fantastic. It’s great how dance has been able to connect different cultures and I do really appreciate that. I think that some of the ballroom routines are not technically correct, and that opinion is just based on being exposed to choreographer friends that are ballroom choreographers on “So You Think You Can Dance”.
Do you think that it is important to have the classical foundation before moving on to the fusion styles?
Absolutely. I am a big believer that the root of Indian dance, especially if you are a girl, is classical. It gives you that discipline, and it gives you the foundation, the posture, and the lines. Bollywood does that but it’s not so stringent on the technical aspects as classical dance.
Where do you hope to take Bollywood dancing in the US in the next five years?
I do think long term but I am really grateful on a day to day basis. I am grateful for the many people who come through our doors and the many people who inquire about our classes. For me, it’s a huge blessing because I never thought it would be like this.
There is a very popular dance show, “Dancing with the Stars”, and it would be amazing to have them do something that is Bollywood. I would love to come to Bollywood as well and do something there but that would have to be something that is worth my while. (Global India Newswire)